Weld setting Gold standard
Royal Ascot triumph showcases trainer's audacious streak, writes Ian McClean
Just when we thought the Irish couldn't possibly leave a further imprint in the most historic race at the most prestigious of British endeavours after Yeats' Ascot Gold Cup four-in-a-row, along comes yet another Irish invader this week to spike the locals' Pimms.
But whereas Yeats was once a Derby favourite and a Group One winner at a mile and a half before contriving to write himself into turf legend, Rite Of Passage's CV contained the comparative pittance of a November handicap and two consecutive defeats at Cheltenham's National Hunt Festival.
Furthermore, whereas Yeats' final victory 12 months ago had a unique seal of history embossed upon it, Rite Of Passage's scraping neck win from Age Of Aquarius on Thursday had a very different, if no less poetic, flavour of its own.
The very next race at Ascot on Thursday (the Brittania) featured a horse called Audacity Of Hope and if there were any poetic justice in the world, it should have been trained by Dermot Weld -- as the name could easily form the masthead for his training career. Ever since taking over the licence at Rosewell House from his father Charlie in 1972, his approach to training racehorses has been quixotic, as he began campaigning horses internationally before many of his contemporaries had invested in a passport.
Go And Go winning the Belmont Stakes in 1990 was a major step, but Weld broke international racing's greatest taboo by daring to win the southern hemisphere's Melbourne Cup in 1993 with Vintage Crop -- and poked the Aussies in the eye a second time for good measure with Media Puzzle nine years later.
Rite Of Passage's victory on Thursday might not contain the audacity of some of the trainer's more high-wire exploits, but it was enough for his relative newcomer of an owner, Dublin pharmacologist Dr Ronan Lambe, to admit "Dermot is a genius of a trainer".
Perhaps it was just coincidence, but Rite Of Passage stood out in the parade ring on Thursday. In the hottest hour of the week he stood cool when others were being mopped down by their lads and lasses. He towered over his 11 rivals as the tallest and the chestnut gelding's athletic walk could easily have been mistaken for swagger.
The owner explained how the Ascot plan was hatched. "Dermot first mentioned the Gold Cup back in January or February before he had even run at Cheltenham. I thought he was maybe a little bit crazy. He's proved me wrong and I guess it's certainly the most exciting day of my racing life."
However, without a race since Cheltenham in March, Rite Of Passage was beset by a series of "minor niggling back problems, muscles and so on". Indeed it was only following a gallop after racing at Leopardstown 10 days ago that he finally got the go-ahead. "At that stage I was getting a little more optimistic but I never thought it would come to this."
For Dermot Weld, who lost his Royal Ascot cherry as far back as 1973 when Klairvimy won the King Edward VII a year after Weld junior had taken over the licence, the novelty of a Royal winner might just be wearing off. However I suspect none of his subsequent 13 winners will have given him as much pleasure as Rite Of Passage on Thursday.
It is, after all, Ascot's oldest (began 1807) and most historic race -- the keystone of the week -- but in tandem with that, for Weld it was the settling of an old score. "It is a race I've always wanted to win. Vinnie Roe got beat a head here and Vintage Crop a neck." If revenge is a dish best served cold, then it more than explains away Rite Of Passage's composed demeanour in the preliminaries.
The seeds of plotting a Cheltenham also-ran for an Ascot Gold Cup rest somewhat in a conversation between Weld and Lester Piggott some years ago.
"Lester said to me many years ago that there is a big difference between horses that run at two miles and those at two and a half." This canny observation was more than borne out with the outcome on Thursday as most of the fancied runners -- untested beyond two miles -- failed to get home in a race run at a punishing pace in searing heat in a course record time.
Manifest, Ask, Kite Wood and Darley Sun all warped for stamina and it was only Age Of Aquarius of the untried brigade who saw out the full distance. It explains why the race's long and distinguished roll-call features such a disproportionate number of multiple winners -- Yeats, Royal Rebel, Drum Taps, Sadeem, Gildoran, Ardross, Le Moss, Sagaro in the last 35 years -- as so few truly stay the distance.
A less-vaunted feature of this week's Gold Cup victory is the role of the draw. Most have scant regard for stalls position in a race over two and half miles, but being boxed next to the inside rail in stall 13 was the difference between first and second for Rite Of Passage.
Pat Smullen remarked: "Even after a mile, being drawn 13 was a big advantage and I was able to save ground all the way round." The ground the jockey saved, and the attendant conservation of precious energy certainly amounted to more than the mere neck verdict at the post. Age Of Aquarius, by contrast, was forced to race slightly wider throughout the two-and-half-mile journey from his stall five.
The result only added to the frustration Ballydoyle was experiencing at that point in the week, and only just denied the outfit its fifth Ascot Gold Cup win in a row. Still the Ballydoylers can console themselves that in the freshman four-year-old Age Of Aquarius they have a ready-made Cup horse for the years to come and found themselves another one 24 hours later in Mikhail Glinka, winner of the Queen's Vase. So, Rite Of Passage won't have it all his own way in his bid for a repeat next year.
In the meantime, there is the small matter of the Gold Cup champion's next target. "Ascot was my first target for him and the Melbourne Cup was my second Flat target," Weld remarked.
"We have two candidates for Melbourne as we also have Profound Beauty for it and we will have to see what the handicapper does. The first Tuesday in November is a long way away." Interestingly the appetite for the Melbourne Cup this year -- above all years -- is greater as it's the 150th running of the race.
This was demonstrated by the uncharacteristic purchase for a prince's ransom last year of top stayer Alandi out of John Oxx's yard specifically to target the race that stops a nation.
Ironically, the sale Down Under removed from Thursday's line-up the horse who would likely have started favourite had he been there. Alandi's absence helped the cause of Rite Of Passage this week; and his presence (and those highly rated like him) might equally help the Weld runners' weight allocation come November.
Meanwhile for those jumpaholics who missed the fact that there was a race fixture in Royal Berkshire this week, news emerges that Rite Of Passage's odds for next year's Champion Hurdle have mysteriously tumbled to 14/1. This may come as a surprise, for there is little precedent for a horse placed in either the Festival Bumper or the Neptune Investments suddenly acquiring the speed for a Champion.
At least Istabraq actually won the longer novice race before dropping back to two miles to win a clutch of Champion Hurdles. Of greater amusement might be the 25/1 quoted by William Hill about Rite Of Passage winning the "other" Gold Cup (in March) any time before 2016 -- by which time the genius who actually dreamed up the odds might be enjoying release from the asylum.
Mind you, it is a windmill at which the quixotic Weld has yet to tilt . . .